I continue to throw up great quantities of phlegm.
about 187 years ago from Hermitage

I have recently been visited by my old bowel complaint. A constant flow, in the last twelve hours, upwards of twenty passages.
about 187 years ago from Hermitage

RT @willieblount: What poor minded bitches are Messrs. Cobb and Clay
about 190 years ago from Washington City

Andrew Jackson
H.W. Brands, 2005

Note: this is not the one that came out last year that everyone's dad got as a Christmas present. That one was by Jon Meacham, who went on The Daily Show to promote it and spent the whole segment cracking childish Clinton jokes (in 2008!). He seemed like an ass so I had little interest in reading his book. Unfortunately, the one I did read isn't all that great. To the extent that it has a thesis, it's that Andrew Jackson, orphaned young, came to see the United States as his "clan" and vowed to defend it against all threats foreign and domestic, etc., etc. You know, the sort of thing you'd expect to read in Triumphant Pageant of the American Freedom Promise or some such textbook.

Jon Stewart had a more compelling thesis: "This guy... was a ma-ni-ac." But even Stewart sounded almost admiring in his pronouncement. He read a sentence from Meacham's book, which he declared his favorite ever to appear in a history book: "The number of scandals that threatened to consume Jackson between his admission to the bar and his admission to the White House — declaring martial law in New Orleans, the execution of mutineers in the field, invading of Florida (arguably without proper authority), killing British subjects, his murky marriage, his slaying of Charles Dickinson, his gunfight with the Bentons — would have ended most political careers." This is the sort of litany that gets branded as "colorful" by Jackson's apologists, but c'mon: this is not the résumé of the president of a republic. This is the dossier on a third-world strongman.

Of course, the phrase "third world" comes from another era, one in which the globe had been divided up among republics, communist states, and a largely despotic "developing world." By our standards, the entire world in Jackson's age was "developing," and the United States was not exactly leading the pack. Much of the Whig agenda was fueled by the feeling that American infrastructure and institutions were not quite up to the English standard. And what Americans then called the "Southwest"? Where people poled hundreds of miles upriver to an arbitrary spot, cleared away a little chunk of the steaming overgrowth, dug a couple of crisscrossing dirt tracks and called it a town? Where basic literacy meant you could declare yourself a lawyer? Forget England — a better comparison to Tennessee in the late 18th century might be the Congo.

Standard of living aside, there was no "first world" in Jackson's age because there was no bloc of republics; the United States was considered a weird and most likely ill-fated experiment whose most obvious cognates were the Roman Republic (which devolved into a military dictatorship) and Revolutionary France (which devolved into a military dictatorship). Jackson was much better known as a military figure — commander of the Tennessee militia against Tecumseh and the Prophet, general of the victorious American forces at the Battle of New Orleans, invader and subsequently military governor of Florida — than for his perfunctory stints in the House and Senate, and one of the most common charges against him during his lifetime was that he planned to rule America as a "military chieftain." To what extent they were right is an interesting question, because "military rule" can mean a number of different things. In a sense, all rule is military rule, in that a leader whose commands the military does not obey is, de facto, no longer the leader; the difference between a republic and a military dictatorship is that in the former case the people with the guns agree to follow the orders of those chosen through constitutional processes and in the latter case the people with the guns follow the orders of their general. But if the general reaches the high chair via constitutional processes, what do you call that? One answer, in Jackson's era, was "democracy": it was widely believed that, as the masses were basically primitives, left to their own devices they would choose as their leader one warlord or another, and the rise of Andrew Jackson did nothing to invalidate this thesis.

For Jackson's opponents were less concerned about a literal military coup than about the election of someone with what they considered atavistic habits of mind. One thing I left out of my writeup of the Whig book was that much of the Whig agenda was concerned with evolving toward a less violent society. Jackson represented the society they hoped to leave behind. To Jackson, every dispute was a war, every opponent a "destroying monster." As such, controversies over tariffs quickly escalated to the point that Jackson vowed to "hang the first man I can lay my hand on," and given the number of people he had ordered hanged during his stint in the Tennessee militia, this was no figure of speech. It stood to reason that Jackson had no qualms about literally killing those who stood in his way; after all, he came from a culture in which quarrels were resolved via shootouts, and had fought in thirteen duels himself.

What I find interesting about the practice of dueling is the extent to which it serves as a template for all sorts of seemingly disparate practices. Here's the basic idea. Say you want to kill someone. You can't just randomly gun him down, because you'll be hanged as a murderer. So instead you start with some sort of nuisance provocation — insults, slander, libel. Now one of two things can happen. One is that your target ignores you, thus proving himself too cowardly to defend his honor; thus, while you haven't killed him, you've effectively destroyed him. The other is that your target takes offense and "demands satisfaction," challenging you to a duel. This means he is officially the aggressor, and you can kill him while claiming self-defense.

Compare this to Jackson's policy toward Mexico regarding the question of Texas, technically a Mexican province but far from Mexico City and inhabited by a significant number of American settlers. Jackson wished to acquire it, but Mexico had no desire to sell. An undisguised war of aggression was out of the question, as the U.S. wasn't yet powerful enough to get away with acting as a rogue state. And so Jackson turned to a familiar solution: nuisance provocation! The border between the United States and Mexico was the Sabine River; Jackson simply declared that references to the "Sabine" actually meant the river more commonly known as the Neches. Mexico now could choose either to ignore the provocation and thus forfeit a measure of its own sovereignty; respond by launching a war it was sure to lose; or, as Jackson hoped, cede Texas on terms favorable to to the U.S. (The Texans' declaration of independence sort of threw a wrench into the works there.)

Or compare it to what Josh Marshall called the "bitch-slap theory of electoral politics" back during the '04 campaign. John Kerry had (much to my chagrin) staked much of his campaign on having fought in the Vietnam War, thinking that it would inoculate him from charges of pacifism in the face of OMG TERRAR. The Republican response: nuisance provocation! Insults and lies about Kerry's record in Vietnam. At which point Kerry could either try to stay above the fray (which, Marshall's article contends, served the Republicans' purposes by making Kerry look weak — if you won't defend yourself, the thinking goes, how can we trust you to defend the country?) or hit back. And the moment he hit back, it would have opened up a no-holds-barred mudslinging campaign from the other side, which the media would sanction due to its insistence on false equivalence.

See, there is a personality type that loves nothing more than to look at a dispute and declare a plague on both houses. You used to see this all the time back in the Usenet days: a "flamewar" would break out consisting of unhinged attacks on one side and measured replies on the other, and invariably people would jump in to cluck that as far as they were concerned, both sides were to blame for the dustup. And there are few places where this faction is more overrepresented than in American journalism. Just watch a "fact check" segment on political ads during campaign season: commentators will tie themselves in knots in order to find some kind of balance, however spurious. "Well, yes, the Goofus campaign did fake that footage of Rep. Gallant cackling as he tossed puppies into a wood chipper, but Gallant's ad failed to mention that the numbers it applied to Sen. Goofus's tax plan came from a mere estimate by the General Accounting Office... so as we can see, both sides are stretching the truth!"

So if these are the rules, why not take a free swing? The same sort of calculus became a serious problem back in the dueling days: if you wanted to make a name for yourself, it was all too easy to figure out who the big man around town was and then pick at him and pick at him until he challenged you to a duel. Assuming you survived — generally a pretty good bet, though you might end up with a bullet stuck in you for fifty years — you had now participated in a contest on an equal footing with a local celebrity and secured a reputation for yourself. In response, the dueling code developed the provision that if you yourself were not a gentleman, then a gentleman had no need to challenge you to a duel if you affronted him; he could simply thrash you at his leisure, and popular opinion would remain on his side because you clearly had it coming. Now, neither the Whigs nor I would consider this an ideal solution, because (a) it is violent and (b) it requires effort on the part of the wronged party. Better would be if the mere fact of being an insulting liar made you persona non grata. But that's not how life works! Again, take Internet trolling: no matter how many times people post warnings to ignore the trolls, someone is always willing to engage with them as if they were worthy of acknowledgement, giving them the satisfaction of an audience for their venom. And of course the same is true in politics. The "bitch-slap theory" works. The one exception I can think of is the Iowa caucuses, which political consultants famously hate because Iowa voters punish negative campaigning. Run a nasty attack ad, and you'll hurt your own candidate more than the one you're targeting. The problem is that Iowa is pretty much the only place where this happens. (And it didn't even enter the union until after Andrew Jackson was dead.)

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